FAA plans $1B comm upgrade

The Federal Aviation Administration last month detailed its plans to alleviate the growing congestion of the airwaves that link pilots and air traffic controllers by undertaking a $1 billion upgrade of the agency's air and ground communications systems.

The Next Generation Air/Ground Communications (Nexcom) program will replace aging analog equipment with digital technology. The digital technology is capable of dividing with finer granularity than analog equipment the radio spectrum that provides voice and data communications.

Without upgrades to the air and ground systems, the radio spectrum would become too congested, forcing the FAA to delay flights as a way to ensure that proper communications with all airborne planes could be maintained, agency officials said.

"We have a 'spectrum crunch,' " said Dieter Thigpen, acting product lead for Nexcom at the FAA. "In the past, by making the channel smaller we had unlimited spectrum to provide additional services. But now we're running into a brick wall. [Without Nexcom] we will have to deny services to the [airlines] or cut back on services that are there."

The new capacity will solve the impending spectrum congestion as well as provide capacity for future growth, the FAA said. "It will increase the number of channels to take care of air traffic control requirements," said Don Willis, manager of the Spectrum Engineering and International Division at the FAA. "It will increase the channels by increasing the efficiency of the spectrum. We're going to digital technology for new functionality," he added.

Nexcom should provide double the current voice channel capacity, reduce radio frequency interference, and provide voice and data to all users from a single radio with the capability to give priority for air traffic control messages.

The FAA plans to roll out Nexcom in three phases, but so far the agency has committed only enough money— $400 million— to fund the first segment of the program, which is set to begin in 2002.

During the first segment, the FAA or the contractor will deploy radios that support analog and digital technology in the en route facilities. The turnover to full digital voice capability at these sites will start in 2005.

During the second segment, which will start in 2005 and extend to 2010, the FAA plans to install the ground network interface and integrate the data link service in the en route centers that have digital voice. The last phase, which will begin in 2010 and last five years, includes the deployment of digital voice and data link capabilities at airports and Terminal Radar Approach Control facilities.

The FAA expects to finalize its acquisition strategy next August and will call for bids October 2000. Contract awards will be made December 2001. The cost of the entire program is expected to be about $950 million, which does not include the cost airlines will incur to equip aircraft with new radios.

Walt Coleman, president of the Regional Airline Association, said that while there are some concerns about the compatibility between the older analog and newer digital technology, the move to digital radios should reduce the amount of interference. "This is the way radios are going," he said. "It's just a matter of time" before the FAA makes the transition.

The Defense Department, which cooperates with the FAA on air traffic control services, also expects to take part in the transition to digital technology.

Col. Anthony Badolato Jr., the Army's Joint Tactical Radio System program manager, said the Army sees an opportunity to work with the FAA as it develops Nexcom. The Army plans to use digital technology not only for voice, but also for data and video communications.

"We expect to continue a close working relationship with the FAA because we're a big customer of the FAA [and] of the National Airspace System, and we also want to share data," Badolato said.

The biggest benefit would come from having DOD and the FAA working with common technology, he said.

"If we can get industry to decide on how radios are to be built, that has a lot of benefit for us, the FAA and civilian agencies. We want to avoid the 'Beta vs. VHS war,' " Badolato said. "We want to get to one standard."

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